I grew up as one of four privileged white children of two privileged white parents.
My family was always open-minded. We learned to respect people whose lives were not like our own. We gave to organizations that supported people whose lives were not like our own. We gave jobs to people whose lives were not like our own. We drank wine with people whose lives were not like our own. We did…a lot.
It wasn’t enough.
My family came from Irish roots. 150 years ago, my ancestors fought against the same brutality we are witnessing today. We remembered that and maybe that’s one reason we were grateful for our ability as citizens to peacefully protest. At the tender age of 12, I walked in a peace march in San Francisco.
It was important. But, it wasn’t enough.
In one of my first jobs, I worked for an advertising agency. When we made major bids for new clients, we rallied the creative team to imagine a variety of ideas. We’d then discuss all the ideas together and test them in focus groups before our final presentation. My coworkers treated my ideas like this: “Oh gosh, that’s nice.” The other ideas were always super-creative and were treated like this: “Wow! Wow! Wow!”
But when we tested them in the focus groups, my ideas stole the show. My coworkers nicknamed me “Jane Consumer.” Although I wasn’t nearly as creative as my coworkers, I felt like I was somehow in touch with what regular people thought.
I wasn’t. I was only in touch with what regular white people thought.
Many years ago, I worked for the Arizona Farmworkers Union. No one explained to farmworkers how dangerous the pesticides they used in the fields were to their own bodies. Pesticides kill bugs, but they can also kill people. I wrote and designed bilingual comics to show farmworkers how they could protect themselves from pesticides.
When I first started interviewing farmworkers to gather ideas, I met a man whose arms were constantly peeling – a grotesque effect of the pesticides he used for many years without protection on America’s farms.
I thought I had done a lot. But, I barely breathed on the surface.
The first protests began in Minneapolis on May 26, 2020, the day after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck with other officers circling him. After eight minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd was dead.
When I saw the protests about Floyd’s death on TV, I thought, “That’s just awful.” I thought how sad it was that the protests were just for this night and then we’ll be watching the next news story.
Strangely, the police officers knew they were being filmed but continued nonetheless. Maybe that’s because they figured everyone else would think just like me.
Before May 26, they would have been right.
When I was 11, my young girlfriends and I went to a local convenience store and stole candy bars. I was so terrified about what I had done that I quietly returned my candy bar to its store shelf the next day. Is that what George Floyd might have done with his purchase using a bad $20 bill?
We’ll never know. We’ll never even know if he knew that his $20 bill was counterfeit.
The protests against police brutality continue to grow expanding from Minneapolis to the world. Night after night since May 26, we’ve watched the protests on TV. The pain bubbling underneath our precious culture that these protests have unearthed are slugging America in the face.
But, what do I say? What can I protest? Like many white Americans who feel much as I do, I said nothing. I lived in my bubble and let others far more eloquent than I speak.
It wasn’t enough.
Black Lives Matter. So do Hispanic Lives. And Native American Lives. And Oriental Lives. And Gay Lives. And Jewish Lives. And #MeToo Lives. But we focus on black lives because as the darkest of these, black people are far more subject to the existential brutality that has burned underneath American culture for the past 401 years.
No more living in our bubbles. We can all do something.
To all my black friends: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I completely missed your struggles and your pain. I’m sorry that I never took the time to walk in your shoes. I’m here now and I will listen.
Credit: The image used here is a public domain photo taken in Berlin, Germany. Courtesy of Arizona Mirror.